Family: Cops beat autistic boy

Crying “I’m a special boy,” teen fled officers into his family’s restaurant. Police are investigating.

By: Angela Rozas, Chicago Tribune: April 25th, 2009

Days after Chicago police promoted their expanded training for dealing with people with autism, a teen with the disorder was allegedly struck by an officer who ignored the family’s pleas that he was a “special boy.”

While Chicago police refused to discuss the incident, relatives of Oscar Guzman detailed the alleged assault and said it was an example of why more officers need to be trained in handling people with special needs.

Guzman, 16, was standing on the sidewalk Wednesday night, taking a break from working in his family’s fast-food restaurant in the Pilsen neighborhood. He was watching cars go by when a police cruiser pulled up and two officers began asking him questions, his family says.

Guzman didn’t understand the questions, said his sister Nubia, 25, and looked down, away and eventually began walking away. Diagnosed with moderate autism at age 4, he doesn’t like confrontation, his sister said.

The officers went after him, his family said, prompting the frightened boy to run into the family restaurant, yelling “I’m a special boy!” as he fled, his sister said.

Despite Guzman’s parents yelling to the officers that he was a “special boy” with “special needs,” one of the officers struck Guzman in the head with a baton, cutting a gash that would require eight staples, his sister said. The parents witnessed the blow being struck, she said.

On the ground, blood pouring from his head, Guzman, who has the mental capacity of a 5th grader, mumbled again and again, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I submit. I submit,” his family said.

The Police Department confirmed the incident is under investigation but declined to give the officers’ version of what happened. The Independent Police Review Authority said it is investigating and has interviewed relatives of the boy.

The family said it is considering filing a lawsuit against the officers.

The incident occurred the same week the department promoted its award-winning Crisis Intervention Team, a program to train officers to recognize the needs of citizens with mental illness or disabilities. More than 1,100 of the department’s 13,500 officers have gone through the 40-hour training since its inception in 2004. The program has won national praise, and just last month, its leader received a Chicago police departmental commendation for the team’s work.

To mark Autism Awareness month, the department held its first Autism Safety Awareness night with the Easter Seals on Monday and sent out a six-page training memo to all sworn personnel on autism and police responses. The department also handed out thousands of index cards with tips on how to handle people with autism and distributed buttons for officers to wear.

The department also now trains new recruits in dealing with people with mental disabilities.

While he could not speak to what happened Wednesday, Officer Jerald Nelson, a member of the Crisis Intervention Team who has an 18-year-old son with autism, said the department has been working to better train officers on how to handle people with autism.

“To recognize it, that’s number one,” Nelson said. Some characteristics of autism — avoiding eye contact, not responding to questions — are the same trouble signs that officers are taught to look for in suspects, he said. But officers could make a situation worse if they don’t recognize the difference between suspects and those with disabilities. Touching someone with autism lightly can agitate them, for instance, and certain restraints can even endanger them, Nelson said.

One in 160 children has a diagnosis of autism, Nelson said. Statistics show that officers are seven times more likely to have contact with a developmentally disabled person than the general public.

Colleen Shinn, training specialist and manager of the Autism Program service centers for the Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago, said the department has made strides in developing autism training.

“I think it’s great they’re being proactive,” she said. “There’s more work to be done.”

But two days after the incident, Guzman’s family says not enough has been done. They want the officers involved fired.

“It’s upsetting. Shouldn’t they all be getting trained for this?” said Nubia Guzman.

She worries her brother is scarred. Guzman, who never had trouble with police, has cried at odd moments since Wednesday night, his family said.

He drew a picture of the incident, displaying the angry face of a towering officer holding what looks like a bat over a cowering figure. On Friday he described the incident in clipped phrases to a reporter.

“Something terrible happened,” the teen said. “One chased me. Killing. Killing unnecessary people. Innocent. Beating people with the stick. It’s terrible. … It’s going to heal. I’m all right.”

His mother, who was always protective of him and had to be persuaded to let him walk to his favorite Chinese restaurant down the street, said she now fears letting the teen out of her sight.

“This time they hit him. The next time, they may kill him,” Maria Guzman said.


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